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Opening Day: A New Season, A New Reds Team

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Tana Weingartner
/
WVXU
Joey Votto at Great American Ballpark

Ed. note: WVXU's politics reporter, Howard Wilkinson, is a life-long Reds fan. The following is his personal take on what Reds fans can expect from their ball club in 2016. 

Whether the team has won World Series rings the year before or finished dead last in the National League Central Division, Opening Day in Cincinnati is a very special day.

It is a day of celebration; the first day of summer in the true baseball fan's calendar.

And it should be a time of high hopes and expectations – even this year, when many fans are mourning the loss of some of their favorites – Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake. And the consternation among many fans that other fan favorites – Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, to be specific – may be gone in trades too before this season comes to a close.

Looks bad? Looks grim to you?

Well, it's not ideal. But it may not be as bad as it looks on the surface.

This is the reality of Major League Baseball: Teams like the Reds can't compete in the free agent market for talent of the superlative quality of a Johnny Cueto or an Aroldis Chapman. The price tag is way too high.

So what do you do if you run a ball club such as the Reds?

You draft wisely and stock your minor league system with the best talent you can find – talented players who, if and when they make the major league club, are under the club's control for six years before a decision has to be made on whether or not to sign them to contracts to stay.

And you trade away your big name talent – talent you can't afford - for the very best prospects that you can convince teams to part with.

Which is exactly what the Cincinnati Reds have done.

They are building a team for the future.

Building with very talented young prospects – some of whom have come up through the Reds systems, others who have come over to the Reds in the Frazier, Cueto, Leake and Chapman trades.

Some are going to become stars. Others are going to fall by the wayside. It's too soon to tell.

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Credit Howard Wilkinson
The view from Section 419, Great American Ball Park

Hal McCoy, the Hall of Fame baseball writer who is in his 44th year of covering the Reds, said on 91.7 WVXU's Cincinnati Edition this week that he is constantly asked if the young prospects will succeed.

"You can't rate them now,'' McCoy said. "You are going to have to wait two or three years down the road. Some are going to make it; some aren't."

I believe that the pool of young talent the Reds have is so deep that enough of them will succeed at the major league level to make the Reds a playoff-bound team again. Probably not this year. Maybe not next year. But soon.

So we should sit back and enjoy the show.

We live in the age of instant gratification; and building winning baseball clubs doesn't work that way.

It takes time to develop a kid drafted out of high school or college into a major league-ready ball player.

It's actually a fun process to watch as a fan.

I've been a Reds fan since early childhood; and that was – no way around it – a very long time ago. When I went to my first game at Crosley Field in the summer of 1959 at the age of six, the Reds hadn't been to the World Series since 1940, when they won the series over the Detroit Tigers.

As an adult fan, I've made it my business as a Reds fan to watch my team's minor league system very closely. Before the age of the Internet, that was not always easy.

But today, I have the apps of all the Reds' minor league teams on my iPhone and I follow farm system news on the web, watching highlights of minor league games.

Best of all, now and then, I can go up to Fifth Third Field in my hometown of Dayton and watch the Reds' low-A farm club, the wildly-popular Dayton Dragons, play in person, always before a sell-out crowd.

Do you remember last year's Opening Day? April 6, 2015, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. A 5-2 win for the home team.

This was the starting line-up for that 2015 edition of the Reds: Billy Hamilton (centerfield), Joey Votto (first base), Todd Frazier (third base), Devin Mesoraco (catcher), Marlon Byrd (left field), Jay Bruce (right field). Brandon Phillips (second base), Zack Cozart (shortstop), Johnny Cueto (pitcher).

Seven of those nine players were taken by the Reds in the amateur draft and came up through the Reds' minor league organization. The only two who did not were Byrd (signed as a free agent) and Phillips, the longest-tenured Red, who came over from the Indians in a steal of a trade in the first week of the 2006 season.

Seven of nine homegrown players. That is extraordinary in this age of baseball.

And I was able to see each and every one of those seven in Dayton back when they were young "prospects" whose names were unknown to 99 percent of those who follow the Reds to one degree or another.

But, in Dayton, I could see in each and every one of them the makings of a major league ballplayer.

I see the same thing now with many of the young pitchers and position players who may or may not be on Monday's Opening Day 25-man roster, but who will be with the big league club at some point – probably sooner rather than later.

There is Jose Peraza, the middle infielder who can also play centerfield. He came over from the Dodgers in the Frazier deal; and is major-league ready right now. He can hit and hit for a high on-base percentage; he can steal bases; he is as steady in the field as any young prospect in the organization. Peraza, I believe, is going to be a Red for a long time; and is the heir apparent to Phillips, who is signed through 2017. If Phillips had not turned down two trades in the off-season, we would be seeing Peraza at second base on Monday. In the meantime, the Reds want to find a place for this young phenom, who turns 22 on April 30, to play.

Right-handed pitcher Robert Stephenson, a former number one draft pick, will start the season in Louisville but will be with the big club at some point this season. So too will left-handed pitcher Cody Reed, who came over from the Kansas City minor league organization in the Cueto trade. He may well be the best of the young pitchers the Reds have in the system.

Newcomers Adam Duvall, traded last summer from the Giants to the Reds, and Scott Schebler, who came over in the Frazier deal, are two power-hitting outfielders who could form a left field platoon.

Pitches Michael Lorenzen and John Lamb will likely be on the disabled list at the start of the season, but should be in the rotation soon. Both have great potential.

And the minor leagues will be full of up-and-comers: outfielders Jesse Winker and Phillip Ervin, infielders Alex Blandino and Blake Trahan, pitchers Amir Garrett and Nick Travieso.

The list goes on and on.

The Reds have had hard times before. Remember 2003? The first year of Great American Ball Park?

The Reds struggled through that grim season with a 69-93 record, just a tick better than the sixth place Milwaukee Brewers.

Jimmy Haynes, a journeyman pitcher nearing the end of the line, was the Reds' Opening Day pitcher in the brand-spanking new ball park on the river. It was a 10-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates; and Haynes was off to a record of two wins and 12 losses in 2003, with a rather hefty earned run average of 6.30.

Major injuries to players like Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin, and others – along with ineffective pitching - forced the Reds to dip into AAA Louisville often that year and they found the cupboard was nearly bare.

That's how we ended up with the likes of pitcher Dan Serafini, a lefty who gave us 30 innings, including one win and three losses and a 5.40 earned run average. Then there was the never-to-be –forgotten Josias Manzanillo, who lost two games in 10.2 innings, with a whopping 12.66 earned run average.

Position players? Well, the Reds brought up Stephen Smitherman in 2003. It was the outfielder's one and only year in the big leagues; and he appeared in 21 games, hitting a measly .159.

So what's the difference between now and then?

Simple.

When the Reds have to dip down into their farm system for help – and they most certainly will – the caliber of the talent they will have available to them will be infinitely better than it was 13 years ago.

I have heard people on social media and in casual conversation refer to the 2016 Reds as a "AAA" team.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is a team that will start the season with players like Joey Votto (one National League MVP award, four All Star game appearances, one Gold Glove), Brandon Phillips (four Gold Gloves, three All Star appearances, one Silver Slugger award), Jay Bruce (two All Star game appearances, two Silver Sluggers), and Devin Mesoraco (one All Star appearance.).

Those are not AAA players. Neither are Eugenio Suarez, Billy Hamilton, Zack Cozart, Tucker Barnhart, J.J. Hoover or any of the young players who make this year's 25-man roster.

Sometimes, change is good. It is hard at first. But it can – and I believe will – pay off in the end.

Go down to the ball park. Watch these young ballplayers grow into major leaguers.

It's going to be fun.

And it's Opening Day. Where else would a Reds fan want to be than at the ball park?